Wapping Baptist Church
Constituted c. 1633
By Stephen duBarry, 2012
The congregation led by John Spilsbury in the Wapping district of London is the oldest Baptist church which can be directly linked to today's Baptist churches by historical data.
Before 1641, when the Star Chamber and Court of High Commission were abolished, any refusal to conform to the teachings and practices of the Church of England was vigorously prosecuted by the civil authorities. Proponents of believer's baptism were consistently stigmatized as "Anabaptists", or rebaptizers. Believers that desired to illegally assemble apart from the state church had to do so secretly. Such was the practice of the church under the care of John Spilsbury, members of which were arrested for holding unlawful assemblies in two separate incidents on April 23, 16401 and September 12, 1641.2 For obvious reasons, few records were kept by underground churches. Based on limited source material, the date of 1633 has been traditionally assigned for the formation of the church at Wapping.
Once the persecution of nonconformists in England lightened around 1641, a flood of publications defending Baptist principles began to issue from London's presses. In 1644, a pamphlet was published entitled The Confession of Faith, of Those Churches Which Are Commonly (Though Falsly) Called Anabaptists. This document contained detailed explanations of many important Baptist doctrines. Fifteen Baptist ministers representing seven churches in London signed the confession. Among the signatories was John Spilsbury.
The Wapping church, now known as Church Hill Baptist Church, continues to meet in the Walthamstow district of London.3 It is affiliated with the Association of Grace Baptist Churches (South East). The association's statement of faith upholds the doctrines of grace, the local nature of the church, and the inerrancy of scripture.4
It is commonly asserted today that Spilsbury and the early English Baptists practiced baptism by immersion for the first time around 1641 and that before this time, they were in the practice of sprinkling or pouring. However, the evidence to support this audacious claim is totally lacking. The truth is we know very little about Baptists before the mid-seventeenth century because prior to that time, they were actively avoiding detection by persecuting authorities. A conspicuous absence of historical data concerning their beliefs and practices during this era should therefore come as no surprise. It certainly does not imply that Baptists across England suddenly and unanimously adopted their most distinctive practice in 1641.
Historical evidence which proves that modern Baptists have descended in an unbroken succession from the church founded by Christ in Jerusalem does not exist. Nevertheless, we are humbly persuaded that this must have been the true course of history, if the promise of the Savior, "upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," is to stand firm.
1 Hamilton, William Douglas, ed. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I. Vol 16. Longmans & Co., 1880. p. 406.
2 Wright, Stephen. Early English Baptists, 1603-1649. Boyndell Press, 2006. p. 92-93.
3 Church Hill Baptist Church. http://www.chbc.org.uk/1.php. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
4 Association of Grace Baptist Churches (South East). "Statement of Faith". http://www.agbcse.org.uk/page3/page3.html. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
[From a larger essay by Stephen duBarry, Olmstead, KY. The footnote numbers have been changed to suit this article. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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